The future of Sunday School after the pandemic:
personal, but not always in-person
Many of our friends in Christian education are reporting exhaustion with all the changes and challenges 2020 has brought them. I feel your pain. We've been challenged at Rotation.org too.
Fair to say that (a) it ain't over yet, and (b) AFTER the pandemic we're going to have a "new normal" for Sunday School and most of Christian education -- and the "new normal" is going to be equally as challenging for a number of short and long term reasons:
- It's going to take time for many people to fully return.
- Some people probably won't come back.
- Many congregations and programs were already fighting decline before COVID.
- New financial strains may cause churches to cut of C.E. staff.
- Surveys are reporting a lot of stress and exhaustion among church staff.
- And "no church affiliation" is still the fastest growing denomination in the U.S.
(I've put a couple of citations and "further reading" links for these statements and at the end of this article. )
The pandemic and its aftermath will accelerate many of the changes we have already been experiencing, and light a fire under those we need to make. Crisis has a way of doing that.
I am hopeful! Call it providence, but 2020 has been a year of some much-needed experimentation in Christian education:
- It has taught us "how -to" and how-not-to reach out online and at a distance.
- It has inspired at-home learning initiatives and materials, but also reminded us of the challenge of getting follow-through at home.
- It's been a year of technical learning, trial and error.
- We've learned that "new" can be exhausting, but also full of potential.
- We've been forced out of our same-old-silos and comfort zones.
- We've experienced the luxury of "doing without" things we thought were important and are finding out just how important they really were.
- And we've all been reminded of the blessing of being together AND learning together (which is something many had taken for granted).
What does the future hold for Sunday School?
It's going to be wonderful to get back together, which is something many churches are doing right now in a limited way. But the need for more “online" and "at-home" outreach and learning is NOT going to go away with a vaccine. They were not temporary measures. They were the beginning of the future -- a future that doesn't sit in the church waiting for people to show up.
I've heard people say or write "people are tired of online!" -- And the funny thing is, you read those things in articles and posts online! But contrary to that kind of "nostalgic" wishful thinking, time spent online is growing and being woven into the fabric of our daily lives. The average American now spends 152 minutes a day on social media alone, and that doesn’t include other online activities such as Netflix, school, or work. More jobs have moved online, and there's been a growth in online schooling too. These trends already existed pre-COVID, and will continue whether you like them or not.
Naysayers are easy to be found when something new is emerging. Remember when those disciples were blown by the Spirit into the street on the day of Pentecost to speak in new ways? (I heard the naysayers when I started teaching with software, and began experimenting with the Workshop Rotation Model, and helped launch this website.)
I have no doubt we're going to see more "online" and at-home Sunday School materials from the publishers and creative teachers. But as helpful as these materials will be, they are not the revolution. The real revolution is personally REACHING OUT to our students and families via various online methods: connecting, pastoring, encouraging, and yes, teaching.
In other words: our efforts will be personal, but not always in-person.
"Personal" is harder and more time-consuming, but it's also often more rewarding and effective.
This revolution won't replace in-person learning
This revolution won't replace in-person learning, worship, or fellowship, but it will supplement it AND encourage it, and give us new ways to reach more kids and families, rather than waiting around for them to walk through our door.
The inclusion of more "at-home" also holds the promise of something we've long sought: bringing parents back into the teaching equation.
These changes are in keeping with something we have been saying in the church forever and 2020 has reminded us in a dramatic way: the church is not a building.
Lots more to say! Your thoughts welcome.
More for leaders...
One of my favorite "church futurists" is Pastor Cary Nieuwhof. Not only is he leading a congregation, he is talking about the things churches need to be talking about. I would encourage you to read his blog. Nearly every one of his posts is challenging and full of facts, such as some of the things I just quoted above and continue with below.
Here are some conclusions from "7 Weird Lies About Online Church"
- If you think people are "screened out," run your theory by TikTok or Instagram. Apparently, people aren’t nearly as done with screens as you think.
(I would add Netflix and Facebook to the number of "screens" in our lives. )
- If you think people "don’t like technology," and "church online is just a bridge to get us to reopening," then you're engaged in wishful thinking. "Almost all of the people you want to reach and connect with are online. It’s time for the church to embrace that."
- He concludes:
In the midst of an unprecedented amount of change, it’s natural to cling to the familiar. It’s also a terrible leadership strategy.
Citations and Further Reading:
- Various Barna Research on church trends and attendance related to COVID.
Here and here
- Barna Research into time spent online, "digital stress" and related.
- 5 Trends Shaping Next Gen Ministry
- 5 Types of Church Members Who Will Not Return
- Pew Research into Church Attendance during COVID and expectations
- Pastoring in a Digital Age
- Best and Worst Digital Practices
- The Church has Left the Building: 5 Truths about the Future
- 4 Reasons Your Church Will Lose Volunteers after the Pandemic
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister specializing in creative approaches to Christian education. He helped create the Rotation Model and Rotation.org.